In most states, the road to nomination in partisan races is the primary election. But some states use a different method, the party caucus.
A caucus is a closed meeting of people from one political party who will select candidates or delegates. In a caucus state, small groups of party members meet in their communities to discuss the various candidates. Each caucus then chooses delegates to represent its views at the party’s state convention. Approximately a dozen states hold caucuses. The best known are the Iowa caucuses, which take place early in presidential election years. The Iowa caucuses are watched closely, because they provide the first indications of how well each candidate is doing at winning the support of average voters.
To prepare for caucuses and primaries, candidates must develop a campaign strategy. If this plan of action works well and the candidate wins the nomination, some of that strategy may carry over to the general election. Key elements of a strategy include tone, theme, and targeting.
Candidates must decide whether to adopt a positive or a negative tone for their campaigns. This means determining how much time and money to spend stressing the positive things about their candidacy and how much to spend criticizing their opponents.
Every candidate needs a theme. A simple, appealing idea that gets repeated over and over. A theme helps distinguish a candidate from his or her opponents in the primaries. It is also critical in the general election, when candidates from different parties compete.
Candidates must also decide whether to target specific groups of voters. Is there any group: blue-collar workers, women, the middle class, or the elderly, that is particularly unhappy with the status quo? If so, that group is a likely target for specially designed appeals from the candidates.
Another aspect of campaign strategy is how to present the candidate’s political views during the primaries as opposed to during the general election. For the primaries, candidates tend to craft their message in terms that will appeal to the party base. The party base consists of party activists, who are more likely to vote in primary elections than are less-committed centrists. This base also holds more extreme views than the average middle-of-the-road voter. As a result, candidates often emphasize more liberal or conservative views in the primaries than they would in a general election campaign.
Candidates for public office try to reach voters in various ways, both during the primaries and in the run-up to the general election. There are three general approaches: retail politics, wholesale politics, and microtargeting.
Retail politics is a meet-and-greet style of campaigning that relies on direct, personal contact with voters. Candidates take part in parades, dinners, and other local events. During these face-to-face encounters with voters, candidates try to present themselves as leaders who are in touch with ordinary people.
Wholesale politics communicates with voters that can be reached only by large-scale mail or media campaigns. Candidates may develop direct-mail campaigns, in which thousands of letters are sent to voters asking for their support. Even more common is the use of both paid and free media. Candidates and their staff prepare television ads and take part in televised town hall meetings and debates. These broadcasts can reach millions of people at a time. The Internet is also being used to reach voters on a large scale.
Microtargeting is a campaign approach that uses databases to target narrow groups of voters and then reach them with carefully crafted messages. Candidates who adopt this technique use the latest data-mining technology to gather information about voters. Armed with that data, they churn out custom-tailored messages designed to herd supporters to the polls. These messages present the candidate’s position on issues of importance to each targeted group.
Before the presidential election, the Democratic and Republican parties each hold a national convention. Historically, party conventions are a critical step in the nomination process. Party delegates would argue over the candidates, sometimes going through several ballots before picking a nominee. Occasionally, an underdog would emerge from the pack to challenge, and even overtake, the leading candidate. Today, presidential nominees are chosen through the primary and caucus process. The winner then announces his or her choice for vice president. As a result, the national convention has evolved into a ritual to formally announce the party nominees and present them to the nation. The nominees also work with party leaders to frame a platform, laying out the party’s position on major issues. Additionally, the convention helps unite the party and excite the party base.
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